LAUSANNE, Switzerland — In four weeks this series will have run for a year, and it will be time to bring it to an end. These last four articles, therefore, will constitute a combination of conclusions and parting thoughts.
In the course of the series, I have received much correspondence, most of which has been very constructive. Interestingly, the most critical letters were those accusing me of being too optimistic about Japan! My optimism, my critics allege, is based on the premise that Japan can change, that things can improve; whereas they argue that change in the sense that I imply — greater openness, more dynamism, a positive response to globalization — is impossible: Japan is doomed to continue to go downhill as a nation while ostracizing itself from the global community.
If this is the case, it is dramatic. To have the world’s second-biggest economy permanently in the sick ward will ultimately cause a heavy toll to be paid by the rest of the world.
I have argued that the three major causes of the Japanese disease are a combination of gerontocratic governance, sclerotic institutions and social anomie. I have often railed against the fact that Japanese society at virtually every level is dominated by old men. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party, or LDP, has more members in Parliament over the age of 70 than under 40! But it is not just politicians. Industry is just as bad. To rejuvenate the country’s institutions and revive society, Japan needs a lot of creative destruction. But that will not come about from old men.
It is ironic that the generation responsible for building Japan into a formidable economic power is now in the process of destroying the country.
That Japan’s gerontocrats should be conservative and resistant to change is not surprising; most old men everywhere are. What is more surprising is that they should be so irresponsible and selfish. Life is good for most Japanese over the age of 60. With quite gay abandon, they are in the process of accumulating a “Himalayan debt,” for which they will not be around when the bills become due. How today’s Japanese aged leaders can look at their grandchildren without feeling deep pangs of remorse is incomprehensible.
It is also baffling that the younger generations should be so passive and spineless. Ken’ichi Ohmae and others have compared Heisei Japan with the final throes of the Tokugawa shogunate (“bakufu”). But even the Tokugawa officials, not to mention the young revolutionaries that eventually overthrew them, had much more gumption than the current generation of Japanese rulers. It is disconcerting that a political leader such as Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi should enjoy such popularity for having done nothing beyond trumpeting meaningless slogans.
But if the LDP is today’s bakufu and the admirals of Japanese industry today’s feudal lords, where are the young revolutionary patriots? When I speak with friends about the decline Japan faces because of its aged leadership, they often respond that they are not very impressed by Japanese youth either. A number of Japanese friends of my generation (mid- to late-50s) have complained about the conservatism of today’s youth. From what I understand, there is, on one hand, the passive conservatism of those who get into the system — e.g., a good corporate job — and, on the other, the sense of passive alienation of those who fail to get into the system.
To argue that this is “Japanese culture” is nonsense. Shoin Yoshida, Arinori Mori and Yukichi Fukuzawa, to name only a few, were far more steeped in Confucian education than the current generation, yet that did not prevent them from overthrowing the Tokugawa apple cart and fostering very radical change. Had they not done so, Japan would have remained a poor and backward country and would probably have ended up being colonized.
Thus the question of why old Japanese men are clinging to power and being so selfish is, in fact, far easier to answer than the question of why the younger generations are letting it happen! Perhaps partly because I have been in education most of my life, I tend to see the education system, and especially the education spirit in Japan, as the culprit.
Socrates said a student is not a jug to be filled, but a candle to be lit. Yet while most educational systems would fail this Socratic test, Japan’s perhaps especially would come out at the bottom. Many people have commented that when you look at what is supposed to be the creme de la creme, i.e., the students who have made it to top universities, they tend to be rather listless. Not much intellectual spark and perhaps even more surprisingly — as this used to be one of the hallmarks of the country — not much intellectual curiosity.
Universities in Japan are among the country’s most sclerotic institutions. Institutions of tertiary education should more than any other practice meritocracy. Instead, Japanese universities for the most part promote people by seniority, which is absurd. Universities should also be, as they are in many parts of the world, models of globalism — not only in the number of foreign students but also in the internationalization of their faculties. Japanese universities, with some notable exceptions, are “models” of parochialism. There is very little innovation in Japanese universities. In many cases, professors are not evaluated by their students; hence they can teach any old rubbish and get away with it. Students are not encouraged to dissent, which is equivalent to saying they are not encouraged to think!
As professors enjoy the dolce vita, so do the students. There is very little pressure. Top educational institutions in the United States and Europe are not only difficult to get into, but also emphatically not a piece of cake to graduate from. Pressures are quite acute. Not so with Japanese universities, even the elite ones, where gaining admission may be literally “hell,” but graduating no more than a gentle rite of passage. So young people are neither rebellious, nor are they very resilient.
A number of my Japanese professor friends have been cold-shouldering me a bit as a result of the criticisms I have leveled at the Japanese university system. I make no apology. Change will not come from above, it needs to come from below, and professors must be the agents of change. They at least should feel some degree of sympathy and solidarity with the younger generations.
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